Then one day Pa said that spring was coming.
In the Big Woods, the snow was beginning to thaw. Bits of it dropped from the branches of the trees and made little holes in the softening snow- banks below. At noon all the big icicles along the eaves of the little house quivered and sparkled in the sunshine and drops of water hung trembling at their tips.
Pa said he must go to town to trade the furs of the wild animals he had been trapping all winter. So, one evening he made a big bundle of them. There were so many furs that when they were packed tightly and tied together, they made a bundle almost as big as Pa.
Very early one morning Pa strapped the bundle of furs on his shoulders and started to walk to town. There were so many furs to carry that he could not take his gun.
Ma was worried, but Pa said that by starting before sun-up and walking very fast all day he could get home again before dark.
The nearest town was far away. Laura and Mary had never seen a town. They had never seen a store. They had never seen even two houses standing together. But they knew that in a town there were many houses, and a store full of candy and calico and other wonderful things—powder, and shot, and salt, and store sugar.
They knew that Pa would trade his furs to the storekeeper for beautiful things from town, and all day they were expecting the presents he would bring them. When the sun sank low above the treetops and no more drops fell from the tips of the icicles, they began to watch eagerly for Pa.
The sun sank out of sight, the woods grew dark, and he did not come. Ma started supper and set the table, but he did not come. It was time to do the chores, and still he had not come.
Ma said that Laura might come with her while she milked the cow. Laura could carry the lantern.
So, Laura put on her coat and Ma buttoned it up. And Laura put her hands into her red mittens that hung by a red yarn string around her neck, while Ma lighted the candle in the lantern.
Laura was proud to be helping Ma with the milking, and she carried the lantern very care- fully. Its sides were of tin, with places cut in them for the candle-light to shine through.
When Laura walked behind Ma on the path to the barn, the little bits of candlelight from the lantern leaped all around her on the snow. The night was not yet quite dark. The woods were dark, but there was a gray light on the snowy path, and in the sky, there were a few faint stars.
The stars did not look as warm and bright as the little lights that came from the lantern.
Laura was surprised to see the dark shape of Sukey, the brown cow, standing at the barnyard gate. Ma was surprised, too.
It was too early in the spring for Sukey to be let out in the Big Woods to eat grass. She lived in the barn. But sometimes on warm days Pa left the door of her stall open so she could come into the barnyard. Now Ma and Laura saw her behind the bars, waiting for them.
Ma went up to the gate and pushed against it to open it. But it did not open very far, because there was Sukey, standing against it. Ma said:
“Sukey, get over!” She reached across the gate and slapped Sukey’s shoulder.
Just then one of the dancing little bits of light from the lantern jumped between the bars of the gate, and Laura saw long, shaggy, black fur, and two little, glittering eyes.
Sukey had thin, short, brown fur. Sukey had large, gentle eyes.
Ma said, “Laura, walk back to the house.”
So, Laura turned around and began to walk to- ward the house. Ma came behind her. When they had gone part way, Ma snatched her up, lantern and all, and ran. Ma ran with her into the house and slammed the door.
Then Laura said, “Ma, was it a bear?” “Yes, Laura,” Ma said. “It was a bear.”
Laura began to cry. She hung on to Ma and sobbed, “Oh, will he eat Sukey?”
“No,” Ma said, hugging her. “Sukey is safe in the barn. Think, Laura—all those big, heavy logs in the barn walls. And the door is heavy and sol- id, made to keep bears out. No, the bear cannot get in and eat Sukey.”
Laura felt better then. “But he could have hurt us, couldn’t he?” she asked.
“He didn’t hurt us,” Ma said. “You were a good girl, Laura, to do exactly as I told you, and to do it quickly, without asking why.”
Ma was trembling, and she began to laugh a little. “To think,” she said, “I’ve slapped a bear!” Then she put supper on the table for Laura and Mary. Pa had not come yet. He didn’t come.
Laura and Mary were undressed, and they said their prayers and snuggled into the trundle bed.
Ma sat by the lamp, mending one of Pa’s shirts. The house seemed cold and still and strange, without Pa.
Laura listened to the wind in the Big Woods. All around the house the wind went crying as though it were lost in the dark and the cold. The wind sounded frightened.
Ma finished mending the shirt. Laura saw her fold it slowly and carefully. She smoothed it with her hand. Then she did a thing she had never done before. She went to the door and pulled the leather latch-string through its hole in the door, so that nobody could get in from outside unless she lifted the latch. She came and took Carrie, all limp and sleeping, out of the big bed.
She saw that Laura and Mary were still awake, and she said to them: “Go to sleep, girls. Everything is all right. Pa will be here in the morning.”
Then she went back to her rocking chair and sat there rocking gently and holding Baby Carrie in her arms.
She was sitting up late, waiting for Pa, and Laura and Mary meant to stay awake, too, till he came. But at last they went to sleep.
In the morning Pa was there. He had brought candy for Laura and Mary, and two pieces of pretty calico to make them each a dress. Mary’s was a china-blue pattern on a white ground, and Laura’s was dark red with little golden-brown dots on it. Ma had calico for a dress, too; it was brown, with a big, feathery white pattern all over it.
They were all happy because Pa had got such good prices for his furs that he could afford to get them such beautiful presents.
The tracks of the big bear were all around the barn, and there were marks of his claws on the walls. But Sukey and the horses were safe inside. All that day the sun shone, the snow melted, and little streams of water ran from the icicles, which all the time grew thinner. Before the sun set that night, the bear tracks were only shapeless marks in the wet, soft snow.
After supper Pa took Laura and Mary on his knees and said he had a new story to tell them.
The Story of Pa and the Bear in the Way
“When I went to town yesterday with the furs, I found it hard walking in the soft snow. It took me a long time to get to town, and other men with furs had come in earlier to do their trading. The storekeeper was busy, and I had to wait until he could look at my furs.
“Then we had to bargain about the price of each one, and then I had to pick out the things I wanted to take in trade.
“So, it was nearly sundown before I could start home.
“I tried to hurry, but the walking was hard, and I was tired, so I had not gone far before night came. And I was alone in the Big Woods without my gun.
“There were still six miles to walk, and I came along as fast as I could. The night grew darker and darker, and I wished for my gun, because I knew that some of the bears had come out of their winter dens. I had seen their tracks when I went to town in the morning.
“Bears are hungry and cross at this time of year; you know they have been sleeping in their dens all winter long with nothing to eat, and that makes them thin and angry when they wake up. I did not want to meet one.
“I hurried along as quick as I could in the dark. By and by the stars gave a little light. It was still black as pitch where the woods were thick, but in the open places I could see, dimly. I could see the snowy road ahead a little way, and I could see the dark woods standing all around me. I was glad when I came into an open place where the stars gave me this faint light.
“All the time I was watching, as well as I could, for bears. I was listening for the sounds they make when they go carelessly through the bushes.
“Then I came again into an open place, and there, right in the middle of my road, I saw a big black bear.
“He was standing up on his hind legs, looking at me. I could see his eyes shine. I could see his pig-snout. I could even see one of his claws, in the starlight.
“My scalp prickled, and my hair stood straight up. I stopped in my tracks and stood still. The bear did not move. There he stood, looking at me.
“I knew it would do no good to try to go around him. He would follow me into the dark woods, where he could see better than I could. I did not want to fight a winter-starved bear in the dark. Oh, how I wished for my gun!
“I had to pass that bear, to get home. I thought that if I could scare him, he might get out of the road and let me go by. So, I took a deep breath, and suddenly I shouted with all my might and ran at him, waving my arms.
“He didn’t move.
“I did not run very far toward him, I tell you! I stopped and looked at him, and he stood looking at me. Then I shouted again. There he stood. I kept on shouting and waving my arms, but he did not budge.
“Well, it would do me no good to run away. There were other bears in the woods. I might meet one any time. I might as well deal with this one as with another. Besides, I was coming home to Ma and you girls. I would never get here, if I ran away from everything in the woods that scared me.
“So, at last I looked around, and I got a good big club, a solid, heavy branch that had been broken from a tree by the weight of snow in the winter.
“I lifted it up in my hands, and I ran straight at that bear. I swung my club as hard as I could and brought it down, bang! on his head.
“And there he still stood, for he was nothing but a big, black, burned stump!
“I had passed it on my way to town that morning. It wasn’t a bear at all. I only thought it was a bear, because I had been thinking all the time about bears and being afraid I’d meet one.”
“It really wasn’t a bear at all?” Mary asked. “No, Mary, it wasn’t a bear at all. There I had
been yelling, and dancing, and waving my arms, all by myself in the Big Woods, trying to scare a stump!”
Laura said: “Ours was really a bear. But we were not scared, because we thought it was Sukey.”
Pa did not say anything, but he hugged her tighter.
“Oo-oo! That bear might have eaten Ma and me all up!” Laura said, snuggling closer to him. “But Ma walked right up to him and slapped him, and he didn’t do anything at all. Why didn’t he do anything?”
“I guess he was too surprised to do anything, Laura,” Pa said. “I guess he was afraid when the lantern shone in his eyes. And when Ma walked up to him and slapped him, he knew she wasn’t afraid.”
“Well, you were brave, too,” Laura said. “Even if it was only a stump, you thought it was a bear. You’d have hit him on the head with a club, if he had been a bear, wouldn’t you, Pa?”
“Yes,” said Pa, “I would. You see, I had to.” Then Ma said it was bedtime. She helped
Laura and Mary undress and button up their red flannel nightgowns. They knelt down by the trundle bed and said their prayers.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
Ma kissed them both and tucked the covers in around them. They lay there awhile, looking at Ma’s smooth, parted hair and her hands busy with sewing in the lamplight. Her needle made little clicking sounds against her thimble and then the thread went softly, swish! through the pretty calico that Pa had traded furs for.
Laura looked at Pa, who was greasing his boots. His mustaches and his hair and his long brown beard were silky in the lamplight, and the colors of his plaid jacket were gay. He whistled cheerfully while he worked, and then he sang:
“The birds were singing in the morning, And the myrtle and the ivy were in bloom, And the sun o’er the hills was a-dawning, ’Twas then that I laid her in the tomb.”
It was a warm night. The fire had gone to coals on the hearth, and Pa did not build it up. All around the little house, in the Big Woods, there were little sounds of falling snow, and from the eaves there was the drip, drip of the melting icicles.
In just a little while the trees would be putting out their baby leaves, all rosy and yellow and pale green, and there would be wildflowers and birds in the woods. Then there would be no more stories by the fire at night, but all-day long Laura and Mary would run and play among the trees, for it would be spring.